john kelly

q: In August '69, who were the people who were asking you for help?
a: It was a broad range of people. Formerly, you know, Republicans in Belfast were a very small grouping of people and it was more a traditional thing among families, like the Adams's and the Cahills and the Steeles and the Mackays, and it was a very traditional thing but a very small nucleus of people.
When '69 came there was a wide range of people in the Nationalist community from all classes, professional classes of all types within the Nationalist community who were pressing the IRA to get their finger out and provide weaponry for the defence of the Nationalist areas.

q: The middle classes were asking too?
a: Of course they were, and they would have had several meetings with the, with the Republican leadership in Belfast at that time, specifically to to to impress upon them the need, you know, for they to go back to the traditional role of defending Nationalist areas and the Nationalist population within the 6 counties, all over the six counties. So it wasn't merely the ordinary common gardner man from the Falls Road or from the New Lodge Road, it was people of all classes. And the establishment, the Nationalist establishment, if you like, right through the church, you know, to the professional classes who who were, who were asking and pleading for the IRA to come to the defence of Nationalist areas.

q: Did the provisional army counsel ever give an order to turn from defence to attack?
a: No. It was just a natural progression of the way things were going within the North, particularly in Belfast. It was the change of attitude of the British government perceived on the ground or acted on the ground by the British Army, and particularly the siege of the Lower Falls. It was that, just the natural progression of things that that led to conflict with the British Army.

q: But could IRA volunteers go out and start targeting British soldiers without authorization from their command structure?
a: No.

q: So the command structure authorised attacks on British troops did it?
a: Eventually, yes, that's what happened. But initially that didn't happen. At the time that Billy Reede, for example, was was shot in Belfast he was out on a scouting mission with another fellow, and they came across a British patrol and and they exchanged fire and Billy Reede was shot dead, you know, but it was not a premeditated attack on a British patrol, it was just one of those things that happened, you know. And that was the kind of sort of borderline situation in which you were living, where where IRA people were going out in defensive mode, you know, and sort of scouting areas to see that, were they clear and that there was no advancing of any Loyalists coming into the area and perhaps running across a an army patrol and coming into conflict with them. So it was a natural progression, it was the way things happened.

q: When did guns start coming in?
a: Well, one couldn't say the guns started coming in today, yesterday, it was a kind of trickle, a trickle, you know. I suppose the big importation was the Libyan connection, you know, of which everyone is well aware, you know. After the bombing of Tripoli, you know, when Gadaffi decided to to arm the IRA.

q: What was the effect of internment?
a: It was devastating, absolutely and totally devastating. Again, throughout the whole community, the Nationalist community, because of the one-sided nature of it, because of the haphazard way in which it was carried out, where people were just taken who had absolutely no connections to the Republican movement. It was a devastating blow psychologically, morally to the whole Nationalist community, the entire Nationalist community.I think it was the the most devastating mistake that the Brits made in the last 25 years.

q: Where were you on the morning of internment?
a: I was out of the country.

q: Deliberately?
a: No, I was away on business and ..But a funny thing happened, my brother Oliver was at home with my mother, who is since dead, and he was sitting in the house and they crashed in and they were looking for my other brother, Billy, who wasn't there. And they said to my brother Oliver, "who are you?", and he says, "I'm Oliver", and they just grabbed him and said, "you'll do". You know, so it was that kind of of irrational er haphazard lifting of people, you know, just to get bodies and to get them in, you know. And I think that that's what really galvanized the Nationalist population, having discouraged and disappointed them and depressed them, you know, and outraged them, you know, it galvanized them, you know, when they woke up to the realisation of what had happened, at this one-sided operation against the Nationalist population. Totally out of character, you know, totally uncalled for.

q: Joe Cahill called a press conference.
a: Well, the press conference actually was arranged by Sean MacStiofan. I remember, I was in Dublin with Paddy Kennedy and I was on my way to Drochoter and I got a call when I arrived in Drochoter to come back to Dublin. And MacStoifan told me that he was organising a press conference in Ballymurphy and that I should go to it along with Paddy Kennedy. It was a way of showing or demonstrating to the British that internment had not succeeded, that the people that they hoped to entrap were still free. And it was really a propaganda exercise. But the concept was MacStiofan's, and the fact of having people like Joe Cahill and myself and Paddy Kennedy on the platform in Bellamurphy was a way of demonstrating to the British that they hadn't succeeded in breaking the Republican movement or capturing those that they believed were the leadership of the Republican movement.

q: What was the mood like at the press conference?
a: It was a very tense, a very businesslike press conference. A lot of press were there because remembering that the British Army were very thick on the ground, in a way it was a coup against the British security forces, the whole logistics of getting cameramen and newspaper people in there without them knowing was another coup in itself. So it was tense, it was watchful, it was people on lookout to ensure that you weren't capture or or weren't come upon by the British Army.

q: What was the expectation raised by the meeting of senior IRA people and Mr. Whitelaw at Cheney Walk?
a: I think the feeling was one of euphoria that that they believed that at last the British government were prepared to negotiate at a senior level with the IRA and that they would be negotiating in a very serious manner about the eventual withdrawal of the British government or the British forces from the North of Ireland. They felt it was a breakthrough in terms of relationships between the Republican movement and the British government.

q: Why was the meeting with Harold Wilson held?
a: Well, it was held at the request of Harold Wilson, er, who used Doctor John O'Connell who was a Labour... at the time. It was a meeting requested by Harold Wilson to meet what he described when he met us, as friends of the Republican movement rather than sort of admitting that we were, that he was meeting senior Republican people.

q: Who were the other Republican people there?
a: Well, Dave O'Connor and Joe Cahill.

q: It was a senior IRA delegation.
a: It was a senior IRA delegation, no question about that, yeah. But again it was at the request of of Harold Wilson, you know, to ascertain what exactly the Republican movement were looking for, to have a ceasefire, to have a truce.

q: Who was there with Harold Wilson?
a: Harold Wilson, Joe Haines and and Merlin Rees, and obviously John O'Connell was sitting in on the meeting as well, yeah.

q: What did Harold Wilson say?
a: Harold Wilson opened the meeting by asking us individually what our views were on the present situation and what we felt could be done to resolve it. So each of us in turn gave him our analysis of the situation and what was required to resolve it.

q: But he must have been quite aware of the nature of the people he was talking to?
a: Of course he was, you know, but he wouldn't admit to that or he wouldn't acknowledge that fight. We didn't mind, you know, because it was merely a tactic on Harold Wilson's part, the fact that he he, we knew that he knew who he was meeting and the fact that he was prepared to meet us and discuss with us was sufficient for us.

q: Did he give any indication that at some stage he would consider a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland?
a: No, ...rather than sort of give us his analysis of the situation, he was looking for our analysis of the situation, and the withdrawal issue was mentioned. One of the main aspects was the ending of internment was a major factor in the discussion, but also the eventual question of British withdrawal from the six counties.

q: How did he react to the demand that Britain should withdraw?
a: Well, we didn't really make him. At that meeting we didn't make demands, it was more a conversational type of meeting where he was assessing or trying to assess our attitudes and what we felt and how we felt things should go. He didn't, was non-committal as to how he felt about what we had to say, you know. Our impression was it was a fact finding mission on his behalf, that he was carrying back to the British government that he was acting as a messenger boy for the British government, you know, to ascertain exactly what these fellas, what calibre of people they were that the British were dealing with, and what they were looking for and how that could be met.

q: But it was quite remarkable, wasn't it, that here was the leader of Her Majesty's Opposition meeting senior members of the provisional IRA's army counsel?
a: It was, it was, of course, yeah, yeah.

q: And nobody knew anything about it.
a: Exactly, yeah. Not even the Irish government. And on Irish soil, which they were very miffed about, you know.

q: Did Mr. Wilson express any concerns? Particular concerns?
a: No he didn't express any particular concerns, as I say, his his, he smoked his pipe in the way that he did and he he merely, well, not merely, but it was essentially trying to ascertain what the Republican movement was looking for and what calibre of people they were dealing with.

q: Did he express any concern about not extending the campaign to what he would see as the mainland?
a: Yes he did, you know, that was one of the things that he did sort of mention, you know, rather than sort of listen to what we were saying, express a concern as to what our, what would be the Republican movements intentions towards a bombing campaign on the British mainland. And we sort of gave him a non-committal answer to that.

q: What did he say?
a: Well, he wondered would the campaign be extended to the mainland, in the event of there being no resolution of the conflict.

q: And what did you say?
a: Well, we said we didn't know. It was not for us to answer that question.

q: But the fact he said it showed the measure of the concern didn't it?
a: It did, of course, yeah.

q: There were, in the first part of 1972, a number of bomb attacks in which civilians were hurt and many civilians were killed. What was your reaction to those attacks?
a: Again, I think that most Republicans felt horrified by civilian casualties because that wasn't or never had been the intention of the Republican movement or of the IRA to inflict casualties on innocent civilians.

q: But that's what happened.
a: That's what happened. But that was never the deliberate intention of the Republican movement or of the IRA. They were things that happened because of bad timing, no warnings, er, misplaced warnings, you know. It was totally accidental in terms of of the casualties That is of no consolation to the people who lost their lives, of course, but it certainly was never was the intention of the Republican movement of of the IRA to deliberately go out and and target civilians.

q: Did Bloody Friday move the Provisionals to reconsider their tactics?
a: I think it did, I think Bloody Friday, again, was a watershed. And again, you know, Bloody Friday was not intended by the IRA to to inflict casualties on civilians.

q: But again that's what happened. Eleven people dead.
a: Again, again..

q: Horrendous scenes.
a: Horrendous scenes again, that's what happened, you know. And it was, it was a setback for the Republican movement in my opinion. But again the there were warnings given, they were not relayed, perhaps too many bombs were in place, I don't know.

q: Was any action taken, any disciplinary action against those who planted the bombs?
a: No. No. Because, I mean, you couldn't very well take disciplinary action against people who did not intend to inflict civilian casualties. It was just a part of what happened and an unfortunate part of what happened, but it certainly was not the intention to to inflict casualties on civilians, it never has been.

q: How was Sean Macstoifan regarded?
a: He was regarded very highly by Republicans as the best Chief of Staff most people would say that we had since in 40, 50 years.

q: The British saw him as a ruthless killer.
a: He was ruthless in his organisation of the IRA, he was ruthless in his opposition to the British presence in Ireland, if you like. He had a very, a very clear mind as to how one should go about military operations. He had very clear objectives and was very single minded in achieving those objectives. He was difficult to distract from an objective once he saw his way towards an objective. He always believed that every military operation should have a political objective, and that would not fit in with the kind of, the idea of a ruthless killer. You know, he certainly was a very good militarist strategist in terms of the IRA, a very good guerilla organiser, a very good guerilla fighter.

q: Why was the decision taken to bomb Britain?
a: Well, I think that has been traditional within the Republican movement. You go back to the last century to the Manchester bombings, I think that Republicans would have felt that the British government, British security forces weren't concerned about how many people died in the North of Ireland, whether they be RUC or be specialists when they were constituted, whether they be UDR, IRA.
The only thing that Republicans felt really motivated or moved the British government were bombs when it was affecting the mainland, so to speak, you know. Back in the '50s, a fellow who served time in England during the '40s for the bombing campaign, who always maintained that the only time that the British government took action in regard to Ireland or stood up and listened was when the coffins were returning to the mainland. And unfortunately that seems to be the case, you know, that's, so that explains why the bombing campaign in England.

q: Was there a debate on the army counsel as to whether that campaign should be carried to England?
a: No. A debate in the sense of whether or not it should be? No, it was always something that was felt that would be done and had to be done.

q: The British government says that bombs in England make no difference whatsoever. That bombs in England or bombs anywhere simply harden its resolve to stand firm against terrorism.
a: Well, I don't see that, Peter, as being the outcome of their actions after bombs have been planted. I mean, it would seem to me, anyway, certainly, just looking at it from the outside that whenever something happens in England that the British government, the British establishment, you know, quickly get in touch with the IRA to see, you know, what's going on, can we get some way to resolve this situation, you know. So no, I don't think that. While it's politic for politicians to say that it doesn't move them, but I think in fact it does. Unfortunately, you know.

q: What was Gerry Adams's role at this time...the early '70s.
a: Well, Gerry would have been like the rest of us, he would have been there in a defensive capacity, you know, defending his own area, as he did in Ballymurphy, you know. He would have been there as, organising his local area in in the defensive mode.

q: Was he a member of the IRA at the time?
a: He would have been, yes, yeah.

q: Something that he's always denied.
a: Well, I don't think he ever denies being a member of the IRA at that, at that stage, no, in '69, '70.

q: What was his position?
a: I don't know.

q: How was he regarded at that time?
a: Very highly. MacStiofan regarded him very highly. If you remember, Gerry was released from from Long Kesh to go to a meeting with Whitelaw along with Martin McGuinness, and that was at the behest of Sean Macstoifan.

q: And that was an IRA delegation?
a: It was a Republican delegation, but I suppose if one wants to call it an IRA delegation, Sinn Fein delegation, yes. But he was interned at that time.

q: What was the effect of the 1975 ceasefire?
a: Well, as again, I'm speaking again as an outsider, but just looking at it from the outside with years of experience within the Republican movement, I think it was something that had been very, very carefully debated within the Republican movement. I think that the leadership of the Republican movement saw a way forward politically and wanted to grasp that way forward. And I think that they took the movement with them a hundred percent on that line. It was a risk that the leadership took and I think that it was a risk that was worth taking and a risk that was successful from the Republican point of view. The pity was that the British government ignored it for 18 months and did not take up those things with which they had agreed with the Republican movement, like the release of prisoners and and..

q: Did you support the IRA's decision to call a cessation in 1974?
a: I think that we all, Republicans always were looking to, no one wanted to live a life where you were always in struggle with the security forces of Britain or the British establishment, so one was always looking for a way forward to find a resolution, a peaceful resolution of the situation. '74 to many people was not a very successfully negotiated settlement or a very well negotiated truce. As it transpired it turned out to be a very disastrous time for the Republican movement. It very nearly finished the Republican movement. And I think subsequent to that Republicans are very wary of again entering into any truce with the British.

q: Why did the 1975 ceasefire nearly destroy the Republican movement?
a: Because I think it disrupted the Republican movement and it it gained, it achieved nothing and people felt betrayed by it and they felt uneasy by it and people became disaffected and there was a lot of infiltration at that time by the British intelligence into the IRA. And that, all of that combined to make people very wary of the, of the situation, of that particular situation.

q: The Republican movement says that it recognises the need to reach an accommodation with its Protestant Unionist fellow Irish men and women. But isn't the reality that the IRA's campaign over all these years has made that almost impossible?
a: No. I would say that the IRA campaign over the past 25 years from an IRA prospective was waged against the British presence in Ireland.

q: But the Protestants, the majority see it as being waged against them.
a: Yeah, but I was going to come to that Peter. I think that then that the realisation has developed within the Republican movement, that there is a Unionist, Loyalist population there that has to be addressed, just as there is a Nationalist from a Unionist perspective population here that has to be addressed that has been here for generations.
The Unionists have been here for generations. So there has to be, and I think that this has been realised within the Republican movement, which is a sea change for the Republican movement, that that has to be addressed, that we have got to recognise that Unionists are here, that they are part of our society, that they have their traditions, that in some way we have, we, while they have to accommodate our traditions, we must also accommodate their traditions.
And I think it's a way of finding the basis for that accommodation that is the crux at the moment. And I think that the emergence of the David Irvines.... of people like that are developing that kind of realisation within the Unionist community and within the Nationalist Republican community.
So I see hope in that, you know. I would see also the fact that while the traditional Republican stance has been, you know, let us get the Brits out, which would still be there but not in the sense of diminishing the Unionist population or of putting them in the position that Nationalists had been put in over the 57 years of the existence of the State of Northern Ireland.
So I think that that sea change has taken place within the Republican movement. I think there's more awareness of the Unionist identity, more awareness of their rights, if you like. But I think that there has to be a reciprocation and perhaps that's the problem. That Nationalists are here, that they have an identity and that that identity has to be allowed expression. I suppose parity of esteem is the key phrase, and I think that that parity of esteem has to extend to Unionists as well from a Republican perspective. Remembering that the basic tenant of Republicanism is Protestant and Catholic in the centre, united under the common aim of Irishmen. I think that that has been diminished by some of the things that happened over the past 25 years and I think that has alienated, perhaps, a large section of of Unionism, and I think that that has, that is being addressed and has been addressed by the Republican movement.

q: As a lifelong Republican who fought in the border campaign in the '50s and who has taken his part in this, what you would call, war, can you still settle for anything less than the reunification of Ireland?
a: Well, I think that the reunification has taken on a different meaning, if you like, that reunification meant Brits out tomorrow, next week, and that we will be sort of united. I think that we look upon reunification or I certainly would, you know, as reunification of our people without outside interference by Britain or by whatever other influences, that we could get together recognising the rights of the Loyalists or the Unionists to have their British identity, you know, protected within some kind of unitary state. So I think that the concept of reunification as an absolute, you know, has changed within the Republican movement.

q: But it's still Brits out.
a: It's still Brits out, yeah. I think that is a reasonable objective to pursue. I don't think that the British have done anything for the Loyalist Unionist population. They have certainly done for the landed gentry, for the the lords of the North of Ireland, and they maintain those in power, you know. But for the ordinary Loyalist on the Shankhill Road, they haven't really done very much over the past 50, 70 years.

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